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Join the army, get your ID pinched - MoD laptop goes AWOL

Ten years' supply of applicants swiped from car

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Personal details of the 600,000 people who have applied to join the armed forces over the last ten years were stolen with an MoD laptop earlier this month, it was admitted late on Friday. The computer was stolen from the car of a junior naval officer, which was parked outside his house overnight in Edgbaston, Birmingham.

It isn't yet clear whether or not the data was encrypted or the laptop password-protected, but the data is said to consist of two separate databases, one going back to the late 90s. Included are details of 150,000 serving personnel, and bank details for 3,500 of them. Aside from these, the databases include names and addresses, passport details and national insurance and NHS numbers for serving personnel and potential recruits.

Defence Secretary Des Brown is to make an announcement to the Commons on the data loss next week. The incident, however, bears several of the hallmarks of recent cases of inadvertent UK government data sharing. Records of people who may not have been in contact for ten years were retained in an MoD database (in the case of the recent DVLA data losses, every single individual processed was retained in a single database), for no clear or obviously justifiable reason a junior member of personnel had access to this data, and he also had the ability to copy the lot onto his laptop.

Questions are likely to be asked about the officer's apparent failure to take adequate care of the laptop. Less likely, but more relevant to the ongoing government data crisis, will be questions about why all of this data was retained in the first place, why it appears to be relatively easy to access, and why government departments - and indeed private companies - continue to allow large collections of their critical data to walk around the world on laptops and removable storage.

On which subject... Also last week, hundreds of personal documents which appear to have been at least briefly in the possession of the Department of Work & Pensions were found dumped on a roundabout in Devon. The documents included benefit claims, passport photocopies, mortgage statements, bank statements, national insurance numbers, home addresses and dates of birth.

It is not clear how the documents got onto the roundabout, but they are thought to have been consigned to a TNT courier by the DWP. Secretary of State Peter Hain, himself a recent high-profile victim of absent-mindedness, has ordered an immediate enquiry. TNT also runs the internal mail system used by HMRC, which lost 25 million personal files last year. In the latter case, however, it was never established that the two CDs, which are still missing, ever made it into the custody of TNT. The current batch of DWP files has now, the DWP thinks, been entirely recovered. The motorist who found them, however, claims he found similar documents in the same place last November.

The government may be running out of novel ways to lose identity data. ®

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